Things are getting a little chaotic at the dance school. Students are in full on rehearsal mode for an upcoming show at the end of February and their schedule is getting intense.
In teaching this class, one of my aims is for the students to consider not doing the things I did when I was their age.
Self-portrait, Monika age 22
Here are some quick notes from this week’s class.
How deep is your practice?
As I mentioned last week, I wanted to hold a discussion with the dancers on what it means to practice deeply, having noticed that, week by week, their ability to focus has been waning.
Sometimes I read books. I like books about the mind. I particularly like books on the psychology and neuroscience of skill acquisition and mental performance.
This January I read Deep Work (Cal Newport) and Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I also read Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi), and The Talent Code (Daniel Coyle) last year, and as a result, for the past year or so I’ve been contemplating the meaning of the concepts deep practice and flow state, and my own relationship with them,
Deep Work focuses on the benefits of working and thinking in a deep, focused way in a world in which it is easier than ever to become distracted by our technology, and why we should be doing more deep work. Working deeply saves time, delivers superior quality results, and at higher rate of productivity. Newport remarks, however, that our ability to focus deeply is limited, and, on average, it seems that we can only realistically reach about 4 hours per day, in chunks of about 90 minutes at a time (which in itself takes some training to accomplish).
Outliers focuses on factors, sometimes random factors like date of birth, that enabled the most successful people to accumulate the 10 000 hours of deep practice he argues are necessary for people to master a skill (although, in his book, he left out the important word “deep”, neglecting to explain that these 10 000 hours of practiced need to be of a specific quality).
Flow describes what it means and how it feels to be in the state of deep practice, “flow state”. Csikszentmihalyi explains that in a state of flow we are completely immersed in the present moment with no distractions, have a clear goal in mind, are aware of mistakes as we make them, and receive immediate feedback moment to moment in order to adjust based on these mistakes. Time begins to distort so that it flies by (an hour seeming to go by in half as much), or even time slowing down as we are fully present in every second that passes.
The Talent Code explores the role of deep, deliberate practice in skill acquisition through the lens of neuroscience- We are not born inherently with our talents, but those who have mastered a given skill have become that way due to the many hours of deep practice they participated in. He goes on to describe the qualities of deep practice that creates changes in how our brain is wired, which, interestingly, requires that we fail and make mistakes.
Sounds like useful stuff to know about for a group of young dancers trying to make it in a hard world where only the top few succeed (whatever that means).
I started the discussion by asking them, “What does deep practice mean to you?”. Some of the answers I received:
“Being completely in the moment”
“Having no distractions”
“Doing it right”
This last one is interesting. Does deep practice mean, “doing it right”?
When I asked him to explain what he meant he elaborated with the example of doing a tendu. If you practice doing a tendu but you’re “doing it wrong”, with your leg turning in when it should be turning out (if you’re doing ballet), then its not deep practice, because the technique is wrong.
This is interesting because as we know from Coyle’s work, we need to make mistakes to learn and change. Too, from Csikszentmihalyi’s work, we know that part of flow state is noticing mistakes in real time and making adjustments. So, being “wrong” is a necessary part of deep practice.
Deep practice is a neutral state. There is no right or wrong, there is simply awareness of what is.
Practicing things without technical precision, not caring, not noticing, and thinking about lunch, for example, is not deep practice. However, practicing things with poor technical precision, but noticing, actively trying to change and adapt based on these mistakes, and paying attention to the feedback in your body from moment to moment is deep practice.
Also, it is possible to deeply practice something the wrong way, in which case, you will not have mastered what you set out to master. This is why it is important to have an end goal in mind when participating in a deep practice.
I understand what he meant by “doing it right”. If you practice a skill ineffectively, you will master just that. You get what you practice.
Next, I asked the class to make a list of all their classes in a given week (which was about 15 different non-academic, physical classes), and asked them to reflect on how deeply they practiced in each of these classes, rating it on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being very shallow, and 10 being extremely deep).
Overall, the dancers found that in ballet and in partnering classes they worked most deeply, and, overwhelmingly, they found that they were practicing the least deeply in pilates. Why?
In partnering, one dancer explained that there was more at stake if you’re not invested in the moment. If you aren’t in the moment, and your partner is relying on you to be there for them, things are not going to go well. I agreed, you wouldn’t want to be paired up with someone who didn’t have a depth to their practice in a partnering class. You would not trust the person with the track record for having a short attention span.
Other dancers explained that they enjoyed ballet the most, and so found it easier to practice more deeply. Makes sense.
As for pilates, the dancers said several things to explain their lack of depth in practice:
“The repetitive actions and rhythm makes it easy to just get it into my muscle memory and then I zone out mentally”
“Lying on the floor makes me tired”
“There’s no music… Wait, maybe that would make me even less focused”.
At the very least, I hoped to get them stoked to focus for my class. I wonder how they rated their focus in my class… I’ll admit, I was afraid to ask (but at least I beat pilates on the depth score!).
Fun with diaphragmatic breathing
A few weeks ago I guided the dancers through a check-in of how well they could breathe with their diaphragm. I think I explained that in a bit more detail in part one, so maybe you’d like to go back and (re-)read that now.
Essentially, dancers were to use their hands to feel for 360 fill: Coordinated sternum/belly breathing, posteriolateral (back and side) ribcage expansion, lower abdomen/pelvis fill (just below the ASIS). They chose the one that was challenging to do, but that they were able to change if they put their attention there. Their next task was to simply walk around the room for a few minutes with their focus on breathing air into where they had chosen to use their hands to monitor airflow.
For example, students who found it a challenge to feel their lower abdomen/pelvis fill with inhalation were to put their hands there and walk at a pace at which they could still manage to create air flow into their hands. If they lost the ability to fill, they were to slow down their pace or stop, and were encouraged to speed up when they thought they could handle more challenge.
Its one thing to stand still, or lie down, and breathe with an ideal diaphragmatic pattern, but to notice and adjust it in motion is the challenge, and generally we lose awareness of this when we start dancing or moving with more complexity. An ideal breathing pattern has to become unconscious so that we can carry it into dancing, and other activities, without the extra energy spent micromanaging it.
As Karel Lewit said,
“If breathing is not normalised no other movement pattern can be”
Let’s pronate and supinate the crap out of our feet!
And we did.
We went through suspension again, to review our introduction to pronation mechanics last week.
I couldn’t believe how easily this class embraced pronation. Feeling is believing, I suppose. This class reported that pronation actually felt nice to do. After practicing suspension, they reported that their hips felt looser, and their feet felt more grounded. I said to them, “Isn’t it funny? Most of us have been told that pronation is bad to do, but here you are pronating your feet, and saying that it feels nice.”
This week we moved into new territory: Supination.
To experience this, we went through a movement called transition from Anatomy in Motion, which replicates the phase of gait in which the foot moves from pronation into supination, with the foot tripod on the floor, as we would see in mid-stance.
This day was reminiscent of last winter when I held a jump landing workshopat York University, and all we did was pronate and supinate the crap out of everyone’s feet.
(this workshop footage is available in full for members of Dance Stronger, FYI. It’s in the member zone, under “Support Resources”).
In transition, what we want to feel is, by virtue of rotating the pelvis, that the femur, tibia, and sub-talar joint (ankle) also rotate and pull the foot up into a supinated position (arch with tripod on ground). Its not the just foot we’re looking to move, but to move it in context of what the rest of the body does when the foot begins to resupinate. We could say that what we are trying to do is supinate the body, as a global movement.
Only one dancer in the class “didn’t get it”. It’s a tough thing to coach a group setting, ensuring that everyone can get a sense of what the movement should feel like in their bodies. This one dancer did not seem to be able to keep a tripod on the floor, rolling all the way to the outsides of her feet, and so losing the supination and going into inversion, aka, ankle sprain city. This is pretty common for people who have had a lot of ankle sprains, and the outside of their ankle becomes lax. Next week, she’s gonna get wedged.
Welcome to wedge city, population, dat inverted foot!
(Transition is a movement we cover in Dance Stronger in more detail).
A story I forgot to tell last week
Two weeks ago, actually.
There is a dancer in my class with a massive amount of rib flare at rest, and a lumbar spine that does not flex (round). It is very noticeable when she dances, and she says that she is constantly getting the correction from her teachers to not stick her ribs out.
Two weeks ago we introduced some breathing check-ins, and we played around with breathing diaphragmatically by reducing rib flare on an exhalation to get to a zone of apposition, and working on using a 360 inhalation without losing their ZOA. This one dancer told me after class that while she was doing this- Not flaring her ribs on inhalation, she got crazy cramping pains in her ribcage. She was wondering what the heck was going on.
While I can’t know exactly what’s going on in her body, I did my best to piece it together, logically.
My best explanation:
In your current position, ribs flaring up, and unable to move down, your most important breathing muscle, diaphragm, is stuck in a shortened, contracted position. So, when you exhale and get your ribs to move down and in, your diaphragm gets a chance to lengthen and relax. This, however, is not currently within your comfort zone to do, and when you inhale again, you are contracting a muscle from a longer position than it is used to, which could potentially create some cramping.
Think about how it feels to go into a lunge or as I recently experienced, a one leg squat more deeply than you normally go, and try to get out. With the muscles in a longer state than they are used to going into, it requires more force to contract back to center, and you’ll feel the muscle contracting harder than usual, and possibly cramping.
Of course, this is a strange and unpleasant sensation to have going on inside your ribcage. Not pleasant, but good information to work with in a safe way. Work gently, not forcefully with the breath.
I hope that this also makes some sense of why it is so hard to change this pattern of rib flare just by telling dancers in class to get their ribs down- They don’t know how to breathe like that, and when they do, it hurts!
Focus was indeed better this week. I didn’t ask them to focus more. I didn’t tell them their their focus was poor and they needed to get their acts together. We had a nice discussion on deep practice, and, as it often does, in simply becoming aware of something, that thing started to change. I hope they will consider this idea in their other classes as well (especially pilates!).
That’s all for today’s notes. Thanks for reading this far.
If you have found my blog, and continue to read it regularly, then it is likely that you are on a journey similar to mine.
But this is only an assumption.
I can only tell you what my journey has been, and continues to be, and consider it highly probable that if my words resonate with you, you’re pursuing a similar path.
My path is one of understanding my body (not just the body) in motion.
Learning to move “well” again. What does that mean? To move well…
Creating an internal system in which all movements (or as many as possible) are available and safe to perform. A physical system that is supportive no matter what activity you choose to participate in. To have confidence that no matter what you get yourself into, your body’s got your back, because it has its own intelligence and intuition.
A system with options to move in 3D.
A system that you are in clear, open, communication with. A system you respect when you are aware of reaching its limits, and you are appreciative of for all that it can do for you.
How to measure “moving well”
Many people have attempted to measure and quantify the criterion for “moving well”.
The FMS and SFMA likely being the most common systems for assessing movement quality. But is a pass, fail, or score from 0 to 3 sufficient? Numbers are nice for measuring with, but can we quantify moving well? The FMS and SFMA certainly have attempted to put a number on movement quality, and so have THIS, THIS, and THIS(and many others…)
What I find curious about all this is that many of the people I work with tend not to be interested in the numbers. They just want to feel better. Feel like they’re making progress. And not once have they asked me for numbers to quantify it (but maybe that’s because I rarely bring it up…)
This is what I hear:
“I don’t know how to listen to my body. I need help learning it’s limits.”
“I want to change and re-pattern the way I move to generally feel good and reduce some pain/discomfort.”
“I’d like to be able to find more strength and power in my dancing without having to feel like I have to push myself to my limit and injure myself.”
“I want to get back to dance safely. I feel very disconnected and unfamiliar with my body.”
“I want to maintain the health of my lower back, improve my movement quality, I want to make all my movements more efficient and more rounded and filled out.”
Replace the word “dance” with any other activity or sport.
I want to get back to LIFE safely.
I want to improve my LIFE quality.
I’d like to find more strength and power in my LIFE.
We can’t really put a number on this. That’s not something I can can tell you you’re moving towards, only an experience you can tell me about, and together we can have a discussion around what that means.
We can put a number on your deep overhead squat, and count the number of push-ups you can do, but we can’t put a number on your ability to communicate with yourself, your self-respect, and your comfort in your own body.
Things we can measure with numbers certainly help us. But they can be misleading, too.
Like the gentleman I worked with who’s numbers were “improving”, yet in his body, things felt the same. He was getting more flexible (numbers up), muscles testing stronger (numbers up), but there were some other details, some mechanics that we’re timing quite right, some movements still being avoided. Numbers were improving but he was improving around the issue, not changing the issue.
Maybe people have created these quantifying systems because there is something deeper. Maybe they know this “thing” they are after can’t be measured, but using numbers helps to communicate, and for many people, is easier than listening to their own bodies.
And these numbers point to that “thing”, but they aren’t that thing themselves.
As the saying goes, a number is “like a finger pointing to the moon, but it is not the moon.”
What is it we’re after? What makes these numbers meaningful? The numbers indicate understanding. Safety. Options. Our own, limitless potential.
I think even the individuals who have created these systems of numbers know that they aren’t the whole picture. They remain insufficient, and so we keep trying to improve the systems, debate the systems, practice them and do research on their efficacy and publish studies about them.
Number of pirouettes.
We’re all chasing numbers.
At the heart of it is, “I want to get better”.
But the person who wants to “get better” needs more than numbers. He/she needs understanding.
Someone asked me, “What things do I look out for to make sure I’m moving correctly as I work my way up? I’m not entirely sure where I would expect my old movement patterns to show up in form errors.”
It’s an excellent question. How do I understand my body? How do I trust my body? What do I look out for?
There are really only one of two possibilities…
Look out for anything that feels the same, because that indicates no change, and look out of anything that feels different because that indicates change. Move into the space of “different” and changing.
Look out for anything that feels unsafe, because that is useful information to explore with care, and look out for anything that feels safe, because that will be lovely to explore in more depth.
Recognizing these things: Different vs. same, safe vs. unsafe, is the foundation of your exploration.
Play and explore primarily within the “different and safe” space. Move past your usual comfort zone.
When exploring the different and unsafe stuff, be careful, respectful, and use awareness, but also understand that these movements need to be charted, not avoided. Maybe not right now, but eventually.
Is there one particular, best method for doing this? Nope. Every method, every exercise, even the ones that don’t “work” are part of the journey.
But it does help to have guidance and support. It helps to have people you can talk with about your experience and gain inspiration from. It helps to educate yourself. It helps to trust and follow-through with a thought process. And it helps to make it a priority. A REAL priority. Not just a , “Oh it would be nice to…”.
What are the confirmatory signs?
How can you tell that things are changing in your system, moving you forwards? Use numbers. They can definitely help, but they can’t tell you everything you need.
So let’s try something now, if you’re up for it. Grab a pen and paper and write this down.
Pick three words to describe:
Your body in motion
Your body at rest
Your relationship with your body
Pick more than one word for each, if you like.
Maybe in motion you feel blocky, choppy, sluggish, fluid ,or smooth.
Maybe at rest you feel disconnected, uncomfortable, restless, apprehensive, certain, calm, ready, or solid.
Your relationship might be described as nurturing, appreciative, trusting, dishonest, uncertain, disrespectful, having poor communication.
Don’t pick words the words you would like to hear, choose the words that are the truth right now.
These words are describing the quality of your experience in your body. When these words change, you begin to describe your body’s experience differently, that is a sign. And when these words make you smile, that’s great, but don’t stop the exploration there.
If you can’t find any words, or you think this is stupid, that’s a sign, too.
Write your words down today. Then, forget all about the words you wrote down. Set a reminder in your phone to check in with them again in a few weeks, months, or whatever.
Now do the work.
Do the exploring. Establish a daily practice. Get the guidance and support you need. Get the education you need. Do something different than you’re doing now.
When you check in again with the words you selected, has anything changed?
This isn’t a story relating directly to dancing, but it does relate to being a human, and since you’re one of those, too, I think you’ll find there’s something in this story for you.
This is a story of a lady that I feel I failed, and my six weeks working with her left me feeling frustrated and confused. In writing this I’ve managed to find some clarity, to see the big picture. That it wasn’t my failure, it was a cumulative failure.
This lady was a cyclist referred to me from physio post rehab for bilateral rotator cuff issues that she wanted to learn some exercises for to strengthen her shoulders.
I was taught that when we see the exact same injury on both sides of the body, the root of the issue may lie somewhere in the middle. Her shoulders may not be the problem. Her shoulder issues may be a symptom of something that’s been going on for much longer.
So, I thought, probably useful to check out what’s happening (or not happening) with her spine and ribcage, those guys that her shoulders are attached to.
We checked out her spine and rib motion in three planes and observed that there was some stuff definitely NOT happening through her spine, some important motions missing (well, all motions are important… You can’t change one thing without changing everything else, too).
To me, what her body was saying was clear: Her thoracic spine was locked into a flexed position- her cycling posture. When she moved her ribcage into an anterior tilt (down), it looked like it was getting pulled into a canyon, but to extend up she became locked and couldn’t move at all.
Aha, I thought. No wonder her shoulders feel gnarly, she can’t move her spine!
It should have been quite simple, but it ended up as a fight. It was more than a “can’t”, it was a “won’t”.
This lady had a team of people trying to “fix” her. A physiatrist for her back issues. A pelvic floor specialist for her pelvis issues. And another physiotherapist for her shoulders (the one who referred her to me). And all of us were saying something different.
Her pelvis and back people told her she should avoid extending her back (even though she was stuck flexed). Keep her pelvis stable and prevent movement because it was rotated. Moving was her problem, according to them.
And I humbly observed the lack of movement in her system. Her back stuck stiff, flexed, unable to extend except for one segment of her lumbar spine, and unable to flex except for a good chunk of her thoracic spine (exaggerated while she’s on her bike).
To me, movement was her solution! Get her spine moving again in the appropriate ratios. See if her pelvis and shoulders might be able to reorganize, and we’ll get closer to the truth.
But her trusted team told her not to.
They told her not to extend her back. Extension is bad. Extension will hurt you.
But there are no good and bad movements. For this lady, both extension and flexion were causing her issues, at different places, at different times, in different ratios and for different reasons, but her team decided that the solution was to completely eliminate one range of the spectrum.
And even though it didn’t hurt to explore her range of spinal motion together, even though she told me she felt like things were moving in the right direction, she told me she couldn’t do my exercises anymore, simply because her team told her they were bad.
In a conversation we had:
Me: “Did it ever cause you any discomfort while we practiced spinal motions in our sessions?”
Lady: “No. It felt fine. But they told me not to. And last week I felt great, the only time my back started to bother me was when I got on my bike”.
Me: “So, you felt good until you got into the flexed posture we’re trying to teach you how to get out of, and then you felt all your symptoms come back?”
Lady: “Yes. My physiatrist recommended that I get a steroid injection in my spine, so I’m going to do that, and I’m not supposed to do your exercises”
I am amazed.
She won’t work on extending her back, even though it takes her out of the position that causes her pain: The position on her bike that she spends hours and hours in every week.
I just couldn’t understand it. Her mind seemed as locked up as her spine…
Granted, I’m not a medical professional. I’m “just” a trainer. I’m qualified to work with movement. I can’t diagnose and prescribe. I’ve been working with her for a much shorter period of time than her team. They have information I surely don’t have. There are always more complexities than what I’m being told and presented with and I can appreciate that.
But in a complex situation, could not a simple plan of action- make spinal movement feel safe again, be of great benefit?
Medical pro says, don’t move, movement is bad, hold your body still, get this injection. All you have to do is lie on this table…
I say, movement will set you free, explore this, there’s so much potential to unlock. But it’s going to take a lot of work, patience, and practice…
And I wonder… would I have done things any differently in her position?
She made her decision with the information she had at the time, to best of her abilities. And with so many conflicting points of view, of course it’s safer to believe the people who have the power to diagnose, prescribe, and “fix”, and whom she has been working with for much longer.
And so eventually we parted ways.
In our final conversation I told her to be an advocate for her health and to always choose what was best for her, not to get lost in the noise. To take an honest appraisal of what everyone was saying to her and do what she felt was right based on what she knew, and what her body was telling her. To continue with the exercises that make her body feel better, and scrap the ones that don’t. And I told her she might consider not seeing so many people to eliminate the noise and confusion. I wished her the best with her spinal injection and to be in touch if she wanted some input in the future.
I imagine this will be the last I hear from her.
Could I have done more with her?
I explained why we were doing what we were doing, and it made sense to her. But the opinions of her trusted team held more clout than her own experience in her body.
I think that last sentence sums it up: Being unable to trust your own body over the opinions of other people telling you what is right or wrong for you to do.
It makes sense that this would happen after years of pain and many injuries, you stop tuning in with what your body is honestly experiencing as a way of just getting through the day, and you start to look to other people to tell you what is right for you. It’s no wonder she made the choice she did. I probably would have done the same. In fact, I HAVE done the same in the past.
Take away from this story what you want. I’ve learned an important lesson, and I hope this lady has, too.
For me, it was a beautiful reminder that my job goes well beyond showing people exercises and counting reps (I absolutely hate counting reps).
My role must include showing people how to tune in to their bodies, to learn to trust their bodies again, and to provide them a safe experience to explore movement.
To show them a way to develop a nurturing relationship with their bodies, not one of mistrust and loathing.
To encourage them to be brave in this exploration of movement, to be advocates for their own health, to inquire and question what people are asking them to do with their bodies, especially me (because when I have to explain, I learn, I appreciate the free education!).
And, if along the way, they get a bit stronger, move forwards from pain, enhance their quality of movement, and start to enjoy being in their bodies again, then that’s a bonus.
As dancers, this relationship with your body, one of nurturance, compassion, and trust, is essential if you want to dance sustainably, as long as you want, and at the level you desire.
If you could describe your relationship with you body in one word, what would it be?
I love airplaning and all it’s variations. I can never remember exactly which warrior variation this is in yoga (is it 3?) but I think it is great, ass-burny fun.
Let’s talk a bit more about ankle and foot mechanics during the single leg deadlift/airplane/warrior 3/whatever the heck you call it.
Decided to make some detailed, scientific graphics to illustrate today’s concept. Behold, the airplane.
Recently, I received this question in an email about how to perform the airplane exercise:
Q: “…I’m sure I read somewhere in Dance Stronger you keep your supporting leg bent? Or did I totally imagine that?”
M: There are two trains of thought, and both are proper, as long as your choice is deliberate and done with awareness 😉 You can do it with a slightly unlocked knee, OR with a straight, but not hyperextended knee. If you are going to do it with an unlocked knee you foot should move into a slightly pronated position, while still maintaining a tripod, and if you do with a straight knee, your foot should be supinated (or at least attempting supinate away from pronation), with an arch, definitely not pronated. Try both and see how they feel.
A few hours later, the reply:
Q: Is it just a question of what feels better in your body or is there a reason why you would do one version over another?
M: It’s more like a question of how the foot and ankle coordinates with the knee dynamically in gait. In a single leg deadlift, as you go down, the foot and ankle should naturally pronate, and as you come up, should resupinate. So, bending the knee couples with pronation, and straightening the knee couples with supination. You want to respect that as much as possible in your training. So if you’re holding the airplane position with a straight leg, then you’ll want a supinated foot. If you’re holding the airplane with a slightly bent knee, you’ll want a slightly pronated foot, and if you’re realllyy bending your knee, you’ll want an even deeper pronation. If you’re doing the movement dynamically you should be able to move in and out of pronation and supination as your knee bends and straightens, respectively.
These were not the instructions I included in Dance Stronger, but hey, if people want details, I’m into that. I’m really into that. I’m stoked this question came up- seeing as lower foot and ankle issues are a huge deal in dance, the more we can do to integrate their healthy movement into weight bearing exercises, the better.
Did you know visual art was my lowest grade in high school? I don’t know why…
Trying to do a single leg deadlift with this focus on ankle and foot movement makes it feel INSANE. Bring this into your yoga practice and it will rock your world. Notice what your feet are doing during plies and you just might push a bit deeper down into a demi if you stop trying to control your arches from dropping.
By holding a pronated foot I don’t mean rolling completely to the inside letting the outer edge come off the floor- this would actually be an everted foot, I mean a “relatively pronated tripod”. And the same goes for supination. To supinate does not mean to roll all the way to the outside edge of the foot letting the ball of the big toe come off (that would be an inverted foot). We want an adaptable tripod, not a chunk.
This is why it’s useful to see people move without shoes on. At the gym/clinic I train at, nearly all of the clients I get as referrals from physio have orthotics. Orthotics for high arches, orthotics to support flat arches. What if you started treating your foot like the rest of your body and trained it to move better? Imagine if we all walked around with powerlifting belts on because we needed more “core support”- an ab orthotic. Just do the dang work, and if you still need the orthotic for your feet, or your abs, or whatever it is you are trying to control, it’ll be there for you.
My two cents for today. Tune into your feet on your single leg deadlifting/airplaning, and other activities, and see how an adaptive foot changes things for you.
“I can’t believe I’ve never even thought about this before… But it makes so much sense!”
The response of one dance-parent in a conversation we had following my “injury prevention” seminar at the Canadian Dance Expo this week.
Yes, I had the honour of speaking on the sexiest topic in dance training: How to not get hurt. That thing we try not to think about.
Well, except for you. You’re different. Keep it up.
Needless to say, I didn’t get a crowded room, and to be fair, there were some pretty awesome choreographers holding workshops at the same time. Why talk about injuries when you could dance?? A sentiment I completely understand. That said, I had a great group of dancers, teachers, and parents, and really enjoyed the discussions we had.
But to call it an injury prevention seminar isn’t quite accurate. We didn’t talk straight up about injury prevention in the conceptual, literal sense, and to be honest, I don’t really like those two words strung together and the frame they conjure up. What comes to mind first, what images, situations, and places, when you hear the words “injury prevention”?
Exactly. It ain’t no dance party.
I propose a re-framing of this injury prevention thing.
And so, partway through the workshop I found myself telling a story about pick-pocketing, inquiring into values, and opening a discussion into how people change their habits. Who knows… Maybe they’ll even invite me back to speak next year.
My issue with the way injury prevention is traditionally taught is that it is simply information. We’re trying too hard to educate, re-hashing statistics, scare-mongering, and hoping for the best that something will be retained, and dare I say, maybe even applied. But the injury rates in dance aren’t going down. This information only approach simply doesn’t work. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 9 chemistry.
We can’t change the rate and severity of injuries, and the time off dance due to injuries until we can change the value dancers perceive they will get from proactive injury prevention.
Or to quote Gary Ward: “We can’t change the way you move until we can change the value you get from it”
Would you go out of your way to do something if you didn’t see value in it? Hell no. That’s why I can’t remember anything from grade 12 physics.
I think we’re asking the wrong question. We can do better than “how can we lower the dance injury rate?”. Find better questions, get better answers.
The following are some of the questions I asked at the seminar (the ideas that, as the aforementioned dance-mom stated, “we don’t think about”). And honestly, I don’t have all the answers, so I appreciate your feedback and input as to how we can better address these, as well as your ideas on what other questions we could be asking.
What if we could re-frame injury prevention as performance enhancement?
A no-brainer to improve buy-in, right?
Instead of harping on dancers about the risks of injuries, what if we made a painless shift to, “Do you think that if you could dance without pain and worry of injury, you could take more risks, excel technically and artistically, and dance for longer?”
What would happen if you placed just as much value on your self-care, cross-training, and recovery practices as you did on your dancing?
I asked them, out of 10, how important is it for you, your students, or your children to be able to dance at the best of their abilities, reach their potential, and keep dancing for as long as they want. One dance teacher raised her hand and said “20/10!!”
Imagine if dancers also put a 20/10 importance on their self-care? Game. Changing. Awesomeness.
What would it take to make you care about injury prevention?
Kind of sad, but this is the only answer we could come up with. The issue is that after an injury is sometimes too late. So how do we appeal to this shift in priorities before an injury happens? A question that remains unanswered for now, perhaps…
What makes people change their behaviour and want to form new habits?
If we were to treat injury prevention not as a concept, but as behavior modification- a habit, it could be a game changer.
Less: “Do this, do that, get stronger to prevent injuries! You’re gonna hurt yourself if you keep doing that”. Who cares. I don’t want to hear that. When people tell me what to do, naturally, I want to do the opposite, especially if I don’t understand why or have any emotional investment in it.
Remember, we can’t change the state of dance injuries until we change the value dancers perceive of our injury prevention strategies.
What if we asked things like, “Do you value your body? Would you like to enjoy movement more? How long do you see yourself dancing for?”
In The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, the way in which people are described to change their habits is through the structure of trigger, habit, reward.
Trigger: Sit in front of the TV. Habit: Eat a tub of Tiger Tiger ice-cream (mmmm, my favourite) Reward: Temporary satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding via the tasty tasty ice-cream flavor
But we can interrupt this pattern by keeping the trigger and reward, but changing the habit.
Trigger: Sit in front of the TV. NEW Habit: Knitting. Reward: Satisfaction of relaxing and unwinding born from a sense of mental focus, presence in the moment, and flowing creative juices
In the case of dancers preventing injuries, we can use the example of the typical shitty warm-up (or lack thereof…):
Trigger: Time for dance class! Habit: Sit in the splits and stretch passively to “warm up” Reward: Temporary feeling of improved flexibility, and sense of confidence and preparedness from having gone through a meaningful ritual.
But we know this might not be the most sustainable long term. So what if, instead:
Trigger: Time for dance class! NEW Habit: Treat warm-up as a deep practice of movement, requiring complete presence and awareness, respecting the body’s limits and needs, while preparing it for the demands of dance class. Reward: Lasting sense of improved connection to the body, range of motion, and a sense of preparedness and confidence that can only come from being totally present in your body.
Same trigger, a more useful habit, and similar (yet superior) reward.
But still the question remains, how do we make the habit change seem valuable in the first place? They have to feel the reward! Just one exposure to something different with a perceived value to it. That’s all it takes. And ideally, this should happen before an injury.
If we consider the performance pyramid hierarchy, at which tier does a dancer’s training generally begin?
If you’re not familiar with this pyramid. That’s it to the right —>
As an early specializing sport, there aren’t many opportunities for dancers to experience to reward of good quality fundamental movement from a young age, and how empowering strength training can be.
We start right out the gate at the top of the pyramid- specific skill, with plies and back-bends without having learned to hip hinge or lunge… Some dance teachers, though I beleive they are a fading generation, still encourage dancers not to participate in any other sport or activity other than dance, limiting their movement options and general physical preparedness.
What if we could include fundamental movement as an important component of a dancers early education?
Does being highly proficient technically automatically infer a strong base of fundamental movement and physical performance?
Nooope. Just ask my mom. I bet she could do more push-ups than I could when I was in the self-proclaimed “best” dancing shape of my life at age 15.
We shouldn’t assume that just because a dancer is strong technically, they are good movers in a fundamental sense, or have a requisite base of strength to perform their best, because they might have unlearned some important human motions in favour of fancy tricks and to fulfill a specific aesthetic and neglected any other forms of cross-training.
Feeling the reward: The simple power of breathing and natural spinal movement
Providing dancers an opportunity to experience the beginnings of a new habit and a superior reward isn’t rocket surgery. It can be as simple as taking some time to breathe, and explore movements they might not have the opportunity to in classes.
So to close the seminar, we explored some movement.
Some cool stuff happened. One younger dancer’s face lit up. I asked her what she had experienced and, with a smile and tone of wonder to her voice, she told us that all the pain she usually had in her back was gone, and her weight felt even on her feet.
Another gentleman, a parent of one of the dancers who was totally awesome and uninhibited and participated in the movement session, reported something similar.
And by the way, I think it’s so great to get the parents involved in this re-framing process. As parents, one of the most helpful things we can do is to model a behavior and mindset we’d like our children to adopt (but that’s coming from me, a non-parent, what do I know? I know that we can’t fix or change people, that power lies only in the individual, and kids are no different).
If you’d like to learn more about stuff like this, my colleague Bizz Varty and I are currently planning a teacher training workshop based on the concepts and exercises from Dance Stronger, which is tentatively being held in London Ontario on October 3 2016. Just shoot me an email if you’d like to be kept in the loop. This will be our pilot workshop, and hopefully the beginnings of a full length training program for dance teachers. Very stoked.
PS for anyone interested in public speaking, I discovered a cool “trick” that really helped- Nose breathe. Only. No inhaling though your mouth while talking. I found I was able to retain my mental energy and was not drained after presenting. When you practice nose breathing while talking your throat doesn’t get dry, you create natural pauses between sentences to keep the audience engaged and better choose your words. You’re forced to slow down. You become aware of yourself, and fully present in the moment. Game changer, for sure.
I attribute this tip to Steve Donald, who taught a Buteyko breathing method seminar in Toronto a few weeks ago. Among the many benefits of nose breathing over mouth breathing, he brought up the fascinating correlation between effective communication and nose breathing. Not just for performance enhancement and health, nose breathing helps us build better relationships by improving our communication.
PPS If you want learn more about what I mean by breathing and cogging, it’s covered in the 30 Day Challenge, something I created with just this intention of changing our habits and the value we get from movement. Sign up for free and check it out.
You don’t just dance with your body, you dance with your brain.
Let’s look briefly today at dance through the lens of neuroplasticity- The brain’s ability to adapt and change itself.
In our current dance training paradigm, we talk mostly about muscles. Stretch this. Strengthen that. Work the muscle groups we don’t use in dance to create balance. Work the muscle groups we DO use in dance to help us dance stronger. This is all fine and valid. But what’s happening in the brain?
This is what I find to be especially interesting: What can neuroplasticity can tell us about the importance of cross-training to support of dancing, learning dance as an adult, and keeping our bodies moving well to optimize our performance while preventing injuries, to be especially interesting.
First, consider these two questions:
Is dance “natural human motion”?
What is natural human motion?
I often ask these questions if I am working with a new group of dancers in a workshop to frame the session and get them thinking.
To the first question, nearly all dancers laugh and say “no”, dance is definitely not natural human motion. I remember one dancer going into a rant about how Graham technique is the most unnatural thing one could do with their bodies (although we later discovered in the workshop that there are aspects of Graham technique that are very “human” to perform, but become convoluted by other more complex ways of moving).
The answer to the second question- what is natural human motion? is less clear.
For many dancers, the first thing that may come to mind is that natural motion means using parallel rather than turned-out positions. They know that the degree of flexibility they need is not natural, and that the going on pointe is not natural. They know what natural motion is not, but have no clear idea what it is or should feel like.
We can see that there is a problem here. Dancers know intuitively that what they are doing with their bodies needs to be balanced with more fundamental forms of training, but lack the understanding of how to do this and what that should look like.
ARE YOU AVOIDING THE ISSUE?
Rather than confront this problem, dancers find it much easier to avoid it, choosing not to think about what could happen should their bodies fail them, particularly if they have never had serious trouble with their bodies before. In a state of avoidance, it is impossible to see the value in supplementary training. Their training to supremely control their bodies can often create the sense that they can do anything, though any duress, by their passion for dance and the power of their will. This mindset is summarized by these words, I think every dancer can relate to:
“Dancers who have never had a serious injury can fall into the trap of assuming their bodies are indestructible, that they can never become injured.” (~Fitt. S, 1996).
This is the ultimate example of being too attached to our physical identity, and so in a way, cross-training can be the ultimate practice of non-attachment. A way to stop avoiding the issue and face reality, reconnecting with who we are as humans, and seeing clearly the realities we need to confront as dancers.
Indeed, the power of the dancer’s mind is incredible. But sheer will, passion, and avoidance can only take a dancer so far, and takes a tremendous amount of energy to sustain. When a dancer is willing their body perform physical feats it is not ready for, or needs a break from, it can be draining and dangerous. All of our choices have repercussions but dancers, somehow, put this out of their minds to keep doing what they love in the present moment. Yes, being in the now is important, but there is a distinct difference between avoidance and non-attachment.
Deciding not to face the reality of their needs and best practices is not what I mean by living in the moment and not being attached.
What’s missing is the reminder from the beginning of their training that dancers are first humans before they chose to become dancers, and this needs to be respected.
As Gary Ward, creator of Anatomy in Motion, once encouraged us to ask in his seminar, in a discussion on how his work can help athletes perform better,
“Do you need coaching in your skill or to master body mechanics?” ~Gary Ward
In the case of many dancers, adding more training will only go so far if they cannot appreciate the simple beauty and benefit in practicing the fundamentals of human movement stripped of their highly trained movement skills.
Fundamental does not mean lowest level, but highest importance.
NATURAL MOTION AND FUNDAMENTAL MOVEMENT
What do these terms mean?
Natural human motion refers to joint motions that naturally occur in the human gait cycle and in fundamental movement patterns. These are the motions essential for smooth execution of larger movement patterns. Observing human motion is “zooming in”.
For example, the knee bending, the spine extending, and the rear-foot pronating are human motions that are part of the larger squat pattern, as well as the shock absorption phase of gait.
As we discussed earlier, it is important to understand is that all motions the human body is capable of performing serve an important purpose and need not be feared or avoided. There is no human motion that can be labelled “bad” or we would not have been created with the ability to perform it.
Embracing all movement without such judgement allows us to move with a complete map of our bodies. Perhaps foot pronation is the cause of one person’s troubles, but it is not because pronation is “wrong”, only that it is happening at a time, quantity, or duration, that is not serving them within a movement pattern.
Fundamental movement patterns refers to full body patterns of movement, motor control within movement patterns, and competence of basic movements uncomplicated by specific skill. These movements can include squatting, lunging, stepping, bending, rotation, crawling, and rolling.
When we look at patterns of movement we are “zooming out”. These global movements are, as expressed by physical therapist Gray Cook, important to evaluate injury risk, limiting factors in performance, and exercise contraindications. Cook’s book, Movement, explores in great detail the importance of maintaining these movement patterns for optimal performance and health.
“The movement specialty should be the goal, not the starting point” ~Gray Cook
EARLY SPECIALIZATION CAN MESS US UP
One cause of this decline in fundamental movement quality could be early specialization, as is common in other aesthetic athletes like figure skaters and gymnasts.
As young as two years old, dancers (or their parents) may decide they will focus solely on dance. In other athletic populations there is evidence suggesting that starting early is not necessarily linked with long-term success, and may even be correlated to increased risk of injury.
The challenge is that early specialization is appealing and encouraged because dancers want to master their art as early as possible, knowing that their “best” dance years will be while they are still relatively young, but early specialization does not allow the dancer to develop of a foundation of general physical preparedness, or base of functional movement and strength.
Dancers who specialize from a young age are may never learn some fundamental movement patterns, or are unlearning human movement, something first called “learned nonuse” by neuroscientist Edward Taub (who did some pretty cool work helping people regain function post-stroke).
It is important to consider that, when a dancer hits a plateau in training, the answer may not be to add more hours of dance-specific training and rehearsals, but perhaps to evaluate whether or not there is a limitation in general physical preparedness or athleticism preventing them from excelling.
Dancing “harder” isn’t the same as dancing better. No matter how many extra nails you use to hold a house together, if it has no foundation, it won’t stay upright for long. As I fondly remember a favourite ballet teacher of mine, Christine Wright, telling our class one day, “If something isn’t working, don’t do it harder”. Seth Oberst also wrote this great blog post on the topic of making exercises too hard.
When trying harder isn’t helping, additional hours of coaching may not be what’s holding the dancer back. Perhaps they lack a foundation of movement and work capacity that should have been formed before they started dancing. But this doesn’t mean it’s too late.
HUMAN MOTION: USE IT OR LOSE IT
“Use it or lose it” is the simplest way to describe neuroplasticity. When we use our brains in a particular way, we create new neural circuitry, and the more we use these circuits, the better and faster we get at firing them. This also works in reverse: we stop performing movements, skills, or tasks, and their neural circuits become weakened, like a muscle that we stop using.
We can call this neural atrophy learned nonuse. When we “unlearn”, motor maps weaken and atrophy. It is not simply muscles that atrophy when we stop using them, but the brain can unlearn and shrink areas that aren’t being stimulated. We also know from experiments in this field that by simply imagining movements and skills we can strengthen their maps in our brains. Todd Hargrove wrote THIS blog post a few years ago with some examples that are pretty cool. So if we were really smart, we would practice visualization as part of our daily training.
#SimpsonsChallenge. Epitomy of neural atrophy
What we have learned from studies on folks who have gone blind, or lost a limb, is that the part of the brain that usually would be responsible for a particular movement or activity can be reassigned for something else if we’re not using it for that thing. This plastic property of the brain, it’s ability to reorganize itself, can both serve and disserves us.
Neuroplasticity is incredibly useful, as it means we can change our brains and our bodies regardless of how old we are (yes, even if you feel “too old” to learn something new, like dance, or how to heal an old injury, neuroscience proves that you can).
There, however, is a critical period when we are very young during which making changes is effortless, and this is why early specialization is so coveted in the dance world. But we also see dancers who have started at a much older age, like Misty Copeland, who took her first ballet class at 13 years old and began dancing professionally soon thereafter.
The point I wish to make is that if we can unlearn it, we can learn it back; the brain is hardwired to adapt and change based on the inputs we give it. We can reclaim movements that are missing from our system, movements that can help dancers move more effortlessly, build strength safely, and open them up to new options in choreography.
So I suppose what I’d like to you have appreciated through this blog post is the the role the brain plays in supplemental training for dancers, whether it be yoga, lifting weights, pilates, gyrotonics, or mountain unicycling.
We need to stop avoiding the issue and face this need to proactively care for our minds and bodies before it’s too late.
We need to understand that we are not just training muscles, we are training brains- We are creating new neural circuits or denying neural circuitry from being expressed.
It is not simply enough to go through the motions. Real learning requires focused, deliberate practice, or we will simply be strengthening the patterns that already exist in our brains and bodies- further unlearning, staying in our comfort zone.
Speaking of deliberate practice, I’d like to challenge you to 30 days of deliberate practice! Join the 30 Day Core Challenge and practice one exercise deliberately, everyday, for 30 days.
So what do you think? Does looking at cross-training for through the lens of neuroplasticity spark anything for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts and encourage you to leave a comment below to keep the conversation going.